To determine whether it is cost-effective to renovate an older home, a thorough inspection must be conducted.
If you know what to look for, you can conduct much of the inspection yourself. Be sure to wear old clothes so you can check the attic and crawl spaces. Equip yourself with a flashlight, pocketknife, pen, notepaper, and tape measure. As you inspect the house, remember that old homes are often not very energy efficient. Look for any flaws that waste heat.
Before entering, inspect the house from the outside. Walk around the house several times, checking the surrounding site, exterior walls, roof, windows, and doors. Locate the north and south exposures of the house. Ideally, the south side should have the most window space. The north side should be protected by a windbreak such as vegetation, a garage, or a hill. Trees on the south should be deciduous, providing shade in the summer and allowing sunlight to enter in the winter. Trees on the north side should be evergreen, providing a windbreak during the winter months.
Inspect exterior siding to see if it needs to be replaced or if it has been replaced. Houses with wood siding should be checked for peeling paint. Peeling paint or bare wood in random areas around a house indicates a moisture problem coming from inside the house. Paint peeling away from another layer of paint indicates that different kinds of paint have been used on the same surface. In either case, the old paint must be completely removed or new siding must be attached.
Check the wood trim around the eaves and soffit to make sure there is no dry rot due to ice damage, leaky eaves troughs, insects, or mildew. In older homes, it takes much longer to repair and paint the trim than the main body of the house.
Aluminum or vinyl siding is often put on an older home over the original wood or asbestos siding. Sometimes this is done to cover a paint-peeling problem caused by excessive moisture inside the house. Moisture finds its way into the wood siding and forces the paint off as it escapes. Sealing the wood siding with metal or vinyl siding captures this moisture in the wall spaces. The trapped moisture eventually causes dry rot or insulation damage. For this reason, unvented aluminum, vinyl, or composition siding should not be installed on a house that has inadequate vapor barriers.
Foundation settling in an older home will often show up in a swayback or leaning roof ridge. If the roof ridge is not straight, make a note to check the basement walls. Support columns, and joists. Roof shingles must lie flat and intact. Old roof shingles often curl and lose their granular surface. They can also curl under and break. Sometimes too many asphalt shingle have been placed over each other. There should not be more than two depths of shingles on a roof. Check the roof for large amounts of black tar; this indicates there have been roof leaks. Sometimes these roof leaks will cause the roof boards to rot. Check the chimney for loose mortar or broken bricks, and make sure that the metal flashing is in good condition.
Windows and Doors
Check to see that doors and windows are snug and well-fitted. Make sure also that they have storm doors and windows. Poorly fitted doors and windows, and those without storms, are a major cause of energy loss. Entrance doors should also be protected by an overhang. Wood frame windows are best for energy savings. Aluminum frames can cause considerable heat loss in the winter. Be sure to check the window operation by raising and lowing double-hung windows and by cranking open casement windows.
Check the basement or crawl space, floors, and walls for damp spots. Mustiness indicates that moisture may be finding its way into the living space. Flooding in a basement will eventually undermine the foundation. Cracks on the inside of a foundation wall often indicate that the wall is being pushed in from the outside. Check the structural members for termites and dry rot. Also, make sure the floors are level.
The should be at least two gable vents. If there is little or not attic ventilation, check the attic ceiling and rafters for condensation stains or dark colors. Look carefully for any signs of leaks. Check also to see what kinds of insulation have been installed in the house.
Interior Walls and Ceilings
Most older homes have plastered walls. These should be checked for cracks. Drywall or gypsum board is the surface material used instead of plaster in buildings today. Examine the walls and ceilings carefully for signs of leaks.
Check the insulation in the walls and determine if any must be added.
Common residential construction techniques years ago involved post-and-beam and balloon framing. The old post-and-beam construction is the most difficult to insulate. Balloon frame houses are not common any more.
You may need some professional help in making your inspection. A commercial termite inspection will often uncover damage that the untrained person will overlook. If there has been extensive damage due to termites, marine borers, flooding, or dry rot, repairs to the house my be very costly.
The heating system, plumbing, and electrical wiring should be looked at closely by someone who knows these systems. Problems with these systems often develop in older houses. They too can mean costly repairs.